A Cheaper Marine One Still Not Exactly a Frugal Ride

Marine One carrying President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama approaches to land at the South Street Seaport in New York on April 11 Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

It won’t allow the president to enjoy a gourmet meal while surviving a nuclear blast, as critics of the budget for a new presidential helicopter once suggested (PDF). But the new Marine One chopper, ordered yesterday by the Pentagon after soaring costs led President Obama to cancel a previous upgrade, isn’t exactly Spartan.

Future U.S. presidents will land on the South Lawn of the White House in a version of the Sikorsky S-92, whose marketing brochure (PDF) appeals shamelessly to the inner 1 percent of any head of state. “You are part of an elite group, an exclusive few who have reached the pinnacle of success,” the brochure begins. “And when you are on the top of the world, you need, want and deserve the very best.”

The very best, at least in the view of Sikorsky’s marketing team, looks something like Mark Cuban’s man cave. There are flat-screen televisions with premium sound systems; a single red rose next to a gold-rimmed demitasse cup on a marbled wood table; a wet bar with “the finest crystal”; and “elegant lavatory facilities” (again, with a single red rose next to the sink). “Do you want to direct a meeting from a captain’s chair at a table of gleaming wood?” the brochure asks. “Or would you prefer to recline in your seat, surrounded by the sights and sounds of a new film or game?”

The Naval Air Systems Command’s contract proposal wasn’t specific about which options would be chosen, other than that they would be “based on the range of VIP Cabin Interior options customarily offered by the contractor” and should “coincide with the technology and style of the current era.”

Sikorsky S-92
Sikorsky Aircraft

This being the president, the helicopter likely will have a few other features, among them antimissile systems, armored seats, ballistic windows, and encrypted communications gear.

The U.S. has ferried presidents in Sikorsky helicopters dating back almost to the day in August 1974 when Richard Nixon waved goodbye from the steps of Marine One. The VH-3D Sea King was delivered to the U.S. Marines’ Helicopter Squadron One in December 1974 and the VH-60N Night Hawk in 1989.

The White House uses a fleet of the choppers, designated Marine One only when they’re flying the president. Others are used as decoys during trips or to transport staff.

The Pentagon says Sikorsky is getting a $1.24 billion contract for the first six of as many as 21 helicopters, to enter service starting in 2020. Like most contracts in Washington, there’s a back story. Originally conceived of during the George W. Bush administration and awarded to Lockheed Martin, a previous upgrade of the presidential helicopters was canceled when costs more than doubled to a projected $13 billion.

Obama in February 2009 called it “an example of the procurement process gone amok.”

He is making some sacrifices, based on Sikorsky’s brochure. At 6 feet, the S-92′s ceilings are ample by helicopter standards but still a tight squeeze for Obama (if his successor invites him for a ride). He’s 6-foot-1.

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